Organising the volunteer placement
Back in 2012 when we travelled to South America for the first time, we wanted to incorporate some kind of volunteering into our 3 month trip. We found out about the Otra Cosa Network through doing our research on the internet and talking to others who had done similar experiences. There are so many organisations and volunteer projects available, it was sometimes difficult to know which ones were legit or actually would make a positive worthwhile difference.
To find out if a charity or NGO is legally registered in England and Wales, you can check here on the .gov website. Many countries have similar websites where you can search for information on a charity. I have tried to find an international list of registered charities, but with no luck.
The NGO, Otra Cosa Network, which we organised our volunteer placement with, was based in England and had been set up by an English family. For this reason, we felt relatively confident about them as we could check their legitimacy on the above website.
About Otra Cosa Network
Otra Cosa Network is an NGO set up in Huanchaco, in the northwest of Peru. It’s a great little town on the beach, super laid-back and friendly. Whilst we were working at Otra Cosa, there were about 20 volunteers from all over the world. The organisation had its own office and house, which is where the family who set-up the charity used to live. Now, it’s the volunteer house where 10 volunteers, including us, stayed during our placement. It was a very comfortable safe house, with a great sociable atmosphere. It also had a beautiful garden with delicious passionfruit trees.
We paid a reasonable amount to stay at the house, which worked out at about $150 for a month. We also paid a $150 donation to the charity. These were the only costs that we had to pay to the organisation. We paid for our own food, sometimes cooking for ourselves, but mostly eating out at the local restaurants, which were super cheap.
On arrival, we were met by one of the volunteers at the house. They showed us our room and gave us a tour of the organisation and the town. It was really useful to be told the ins and outs, given advice about safety and information about the local community. We then met with the head of the organisation who discussed with us various options as to how we could be useful to their projects. We had always planned on working at the school, but it was nice to be offered the flexibility to change or be involved in more than one project.
Otra Cosa is involved in many projects all helping the local community. They have links with schools and nurseries in the local area, however this is not their main work. One of their other projects included a women’s empowerment group, which offered a safe place for women, many victims of abuse or poverty, to get support or advice. It also provided workshops where they could learn skills necessary to become more independent and which offered them a means to earn their own wage. Another project that was very successful was the creation of a skate park for the local kids with the aim of providing a safe place and positive role models. During our time there, one of the more desperate causes that we found most shocking, was the help they tried to give to a community of families living on a rubbish dump. These families had constructed make-shift homes beside the mountains of rubbish, where they would work all day collecting plastic, metals and other materials which could be sold. They also had their own cemetery there. These families spent their whole life there – they were born, they lived and they died on the rubbish site.
About CEP school
Our volunteer placement involved working in a school in the next village of Ramon Castilla. The CEP school was run by Father Tumba, who received volunteers from Otra Cosa. The school relied on donations and volunteers to keep it running, and often struggled for funds. It employed many local teachers, but also needed a handful of volunteers to run certain classes and help with the development of the school.
The school itself was a huge success story, which was down to the tireless hard work of Father Tumba. The school had started from nothing with just a sheltered area in which to give classes. Four years later, when we arrived, the school had about 12 different classrooms, toilets, a big playground and patio, and some access to water and electricity. Father Tumba also had more plans for the school. Whilst we were there, it was being expanded and they were in the middle of creating a new library. They also wanted to build more classrooms in order to provide a sixth-form for post-16 year olds.
The CEP school took in children from impoverished families in the area. If the school weren’t there, the vast majority of the children would simply not go to school and therefore, would not get an education. For many families, an education was not considered important or even necessary. The children were needed at home to work and earn money for the family, so the school often had problems maintaining pupil attendance.
The students lived in the neighbouring villages, which were self-made communities built on the outskirts of the nearest biggest city, Trujillo. Most of the houses were simple breeze block constructions with a concrete floor and a corrugated-metal roof. Some were lucky to connect themselves up to the electricity mains. Water was often supplied to one point in the village and shared, however it was common for supplies to be cut off. The streets were simple dirt tracks and there was no kind of public services available.
Schooling is free in Peru, however, children are expected to buy the necessary books and supplies and their uniform, which is just not feasible for many families. The CEP school would often donate clothes and books to the children, and they even gave pupils a desk so they could study at home. During the school day, students were given a snack and drink, which sometimes may have been the only thing they would eat that day.
As well as outside donations, the CEP school also tried to raise their own funds. They had set up their own bakery so they could sell the bread to the local community. They would ask parents to take it in turns to work a shift in the bakery and to help maintain and clean the school. Whilst we were there, we never saw the bakery in action, however, it had been used in the past. I hope it is being used today.
Our work at CEP school
Our job at the CEP school required us to work the school day, starting at 7.30am and finishing at 1pm. We had to get the local bus at 7am, which always involved us gringos haggling over the price. One time the bus driver told us we had to pay more because they needed to fill up with fuel that day!
We were a group of about 5 volunteers working at CEP school. Between us we gave English lessons, art, music and dance, and P.E lessons. There was no curriculum or plan of learning to follow, so we were expected to just get on and do what we could. This was good in some ways because it gave us the flexibility and opportunity to be creative and teach what we wanted. The P.E. classes, in particular, were good fun and the kids loved playing football and volleyball. No matter if it were 35 degrees, they were happy to be running about, which certainly had the British volunteers on their toes!
However, it was also difficult, challenging and frustrating. There were so few resources and materials for us to prepare anything fantastic. It was also frustrating for the kids who had gotten used to new teachers coming and going and repeating the same topics and same boring lessons. We were told that English was very important for the students and could open up opportunities for work in the future, however their level was basic as there was no real progression throughout their schooling. Whilst I was taking the English classes I began to create a folder with some kind of plan of teaching. This could be passed to the next volunteers who could then have a better idea of where to start and what level the children were at. Hopefully this would provide some kind of continuity.
We were also required to help with the maintenance of the school. Between our lessons, we would help plant trees and water the grass. We also repainted the walls and helped moving furniture and organising things. Everyday we returned home dusty and sweaty, but feeling we had done a good (half) day’s work.
The children were great. They were friendly and warm, and loved to talk to us. The school did not encourage a very hard-working studious culture, which I think we found difficult to understand at the beginning. We soon realised that it was, in fact, an achievement that they attended school at all, so maybe the best thing was to provide a fun and secure place for them. It meant they were enjoying their childhood, rather than having too much responsibility at home, working on the streets and growing up too fast. So often, lessons were disrupted for one reason or another. Sometimes, a teacher was absent and, of course, there was no cover teacher so the kids would just be left in the class on their own. That was when we would be asked to do another P.E lesson – sometimes they would spend half their day playing football! Other times, Father Tumba would announce that it was someone’s birthday and everyone would leave their lesson to come out and celebrate.
As volunteers, we often felt that we were given far too much credit and praise for being there. Sometimes we felt that we were considered superior to the other permanent teachers there and there was not a lot of mingling between us. I’m not sure whether it was through difficulties in communication or because there was some resentment towards us or what, but it seemed a shame to not have a more unified team of staff. On top of that, every time a new volunteer left, we were given the biggest goodbye ceremony! The whole school would congregate in the playground to give speeches, sing, read poems etc. Each of the students would come to give us a kiss goodbye and say a word or two. We were presented with certificates and given cards and posters to wish us well on our journey. It was amazing and overwhelming. We were so grateful, but couldn’t help feel that it was just too much. We felt guilty that we had only stayed one month as it was just not enough to make a real difference. So much more needed to be done.
Looking back now that I am a trained teacher, it would have been far more useful if they accepted more qualified volunteers. Not one of us had any teaching qualifications and we had very little teaching experience. It was definitely true that we had good intentions though and most of us were willing to work hard. However, what the school really needed was a permanent fully-trained local teacher. Perhaps it was something that the school just couldn’t afford.
Life in Huanchaco
Everyday, after work finished at 1pm, we had the afternoon free. We would often go out for lunch to Menuland for a super-cheap double-carbed meal, usually consisting of soup for starters and then chips, rice and some kind of meat for seconds. Some days we would have a siesta to recover from the hard mornings at work or because it was so hot. Other days, we’d go to the beach and maybe have a surf lesson. Surf lessons were cheap and we could hire a board for about $5.
Huanchaco was a fantastic little town to stay. The beach was the social-centre and we would often meet up and have some drinks with the other volunteers. At night-time, we would have a campfire and one of the locals would usually turn up with a guitar.
We also took part in a few other activities. Some of the volunteers would organise football matches. A group of us even had a few salsa lessons. Most of the volunteers arranged Spanish lessons with local tutors during their stay.
I managed to arrange to give private lessons to a girl my age who lived in the town. One day, her parents knocked at the door of the volunteer house and I happened to answer. They said they needed someone to teach English to their daughter and I went to get one of the volunteers who was a trained English teacher, but they insisted that I was the one to do it! It turned out to be a fantastic experience. They were the loveliest family and became like my grandparents whilst I was there. They would lovingly call me ‘Elenita’ and made sure that my boyfriend and I were looked after. They even invited us for dinner with their family. And then we were invited to dinner at the Aunt’s house. Once again, we were overwhelmed by the kindness and warmth of people in South America.
Reflections on my experience at CEP school.
Overall, it was a fantastic experience. It was one of the best months of our life where we got to experience a bit of Peruvian life, make friends and try to give back. I would definitely recommend working for Otra Cosa who are a well-established and positively welcomed organisation in the local community. They do a lot of amazing work to try to encourage local people to become more independent and self-sufficient.
Perhaps one thing I would have done differently if I could have, is that I would have volunteered for longer and been more prepared. I was only there for a month and I was not a trained teacher, so it was very limited as to how much of a positive impact I could make. As I said above, it would be better to train local people to become teachers who could work there permanently.
That said, it was our first experience of volunteering and it gave us an insight into teaching and how an NGO works. And most importantly, it taught us what kind of volunteer work is most effective and what we should consider in the future.